Yemen again.

If one adopts the currently fashionable socio-economic explanation for Islamist radicalism, then Yemen’s current problems are explained by its poverty and lack of effective government.[1] It has few natural resources (water and oil are both in short supply) and is a made-up country plastered over a tribal reality. It provided the setting for Al Qaeda Classic to bomb the U.S.S Cole in 2000; it provided the haven from which Anwar al-Awliki ran his propaganda operations from 2004 to 2011; and “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” set up shop in 2009.

Most Yemenis are Sunni Muslims, but a minority are Shi’a Muslims. Among the latter are the Zaydis of northern Yemen. The Zaydis, in turn, are led by the al-Houthi family. It has been simpler for Westerners to describe the group as “Houthis.” Back in the 1990s, the al Houthi family, like many other people, fell out with the one-time ruler of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh. This led to a low level insurgency among the Houthis during the first decade of the 21st Century. It is entirely possible that Shi’ite Iran has been providing some aid to the Houthis in the same way that they provide aid to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to the Assad government in Syria.[2]

On top of this, in 2002 the United States opened a Yemen front in its Global War on Terror. It sent Special Forces troops to train the army of Yemen. About 100 drone strikes have killed perhaps 900 militants, but also a bunch of civilians.[3] This has created something of a problem in logic for the Houthis. On the one hand, the Houthis hate Al Qaeda because they’re Sunnis. On the other hand, the Houthis hate the United States because Americans are infidels and they also blow up things in Yemen. A problem in logic is not always a problem in reality. The Houthis adopted an eclectic “a plague on both your houses” approach.

Then came the “Arab Spring” in 2011. The Houthis joined a bunch of Sunnis tribes in the south to force Saleh out of power. Saleh’s “vice president,” Abed Hadi, took over as “president.”[4] Saleh may have hoped to return to power once things quieted down: his son commanded the Republican Guard and could topple Hadi at any time. Hadi solved this problem by disbanding the Republican Guard. Then fighting between the houthis, the Sunni tribes and the government soon started up again. In early 2015, the Houthis seized the capital city, Sana’a.

It will be difficult to do anything about this mess. Education and economic development sound good in speeches, but take time and local co-operation. As Homer Simpson said when told of a 48 hour waiting period to buy a gun, “But I’m angry now.” Saleh may have been scheming with the Houthis in hopes of getting back into power. Old Middle-East hands are probably muttering “so what else is new?” Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is roping-up support for intervention in Yemen to toss the Houthis out on their ear. Until they do, the local al Qaeda franchise is portraying itself as the only effective Sunni response to the Shi’ite power grab. Finally, there is the ISIS dimension.[5] Since the end of 2014 ISIS has been making connections with Islamist groups in Libya, where the chaotic situation differs little from that in Yemen or Syria. Yemen is likely to be next on the list. Eventually, Washington may start to see merits in a return to effective tyranny in place of anarchy. Doubtless, many American allies will heave a sigh of relief.

[1] “Yemen’s descent into chaos,” The Week, 6 March 2015.

[2] You can see why the Saudis think that Iran is a real problem. Benjamin Netanyahu is a loud voice insisting on a strong stand against Iran’s nuclear program, but he likely isn’t the only—or most important—one.

[3] Opponents of the Saleh regime purport to believe that it identified its own political opponents to the Americans as Islamist militants in need of attack. See: Phoenix Program.

[4] These terms are part of the farce that Yemen is in anyway a Western-style country.

[5] Benoit Faucon and Matt Bradley, “Islamic State Co-Opted Radicals in Libya,” WSJ, 18 February 2015.

The Arms Barometer

Great attention has focused on the dangers posed by Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). However, more than 80 percent of the violent conflicts waged during the 1990s employed only “small arms” (weapons ranging from pistols to RPGs). Consequently, the availability of small arms is a matter of real concern. How many guns are there circulating in the world? A lot. The Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva, runs an annual Small Arms Survey. The 2002 edition estimates that there are about 640 million small arms worldwide. Some of these guns are newly manufactured. About 8 million new guns were produced in 2000 alone. Some of them are used guns left over from earlier conflicts. Back in 2002, there were estimated to be about half a million small arms in Cambodia, which the Cambodians were busy selling all over the place through the conduit of Thailand.

The “belle of the ball” in small wars appears to be the old AK-47. (See my post on “The Gun That Made the Nineties Roar.”) The black market price of an AK-47 works as a barometer of conflict in a particular society. When the price is really low (say $40 for a used, but functional assault rifle), every little thug in the neighborhood can afford one. Violent robberies and the settlement of petty quarrels by means of homicide spread like wildfire. This is typically the case in the aftermath of some conflict, when the demand for guns has fallen sharply. A price range between $230 and $400 per weapon is the normal market price. Prices above $1,000 a weapon indicate a desperate, time-sensitive demand for weapons. Civil war is about to break out, so people will pay any price to get an assault rifle.

What do local market prices tell us about the state of civil peace in various countries around the world? Well, in 2002, an AK-47 sold for $15 in Mozambique, $40 in Cambodia, $90 in Sudan and Afghanistan, and $100 in both Nigeria and Nicaragua. Happy days were here again in these places after bitter wars. Other places, not so much. At the same time that the price of an AK-47 fell below market level in those places, they were bringing $800 each in Columbia, $1,200 in Bangladesh, $2,400 in Kashmir, $3,000 on the West Bank (more than twice as high as in 1999), and $3,800 in Bihar state in India. This indicated that a new catastrophe loomed over South Asia. It wouldn’t have to turn into a nuclear war to be deadly.

It is worth noting that the “merchants of death” aren’t always, or even mostly, Western industrial nations. One of the key forms of industrialization pursued by developing economies appears to be an arms industry. Many developing countries seem to want to alter their balance of payments by producing arms for sale abroad in a burgeoning world market, rather than importing arms in exchange for other exports. Small producers of arms now include Ukraine, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Portugal, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Columbia, Mexico, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, and Australia. To some extent, these countries obtain the means to produce arms by attracting European arms manufacturers to license factories in the developing countries. Take the example of Heckler and Koch. The German-based firm licensed factories in Greece and Iran. However, Greece exported some of the weapons manufactured in the licensed factory to Libya. Reportedly, Libya transferred some of these Heckler and Koch weapons to Lebanon. The Iranian Heckler and Koch factory exported some of their weapons to the Sudan. From Sudan the weapons went to Lebanon, Algeria, and Egypt.

I suppose that somebody could use the AH-47 index to run a futures market in No Future.


Don Peck, “The World in Numbers: The Gun Trade,” Atlantic, December 2002, pp. 46-47.